As a high school senior, Deidra Johnson applied to several prestigious colleges. Johnson’s parents were proactive in taking her and some friends on an extensive college tour to expose them to campus life. All that was left was to make a decision.
After mulling over acceptances from schools such as University of Maryland and Winthrop University, she embraced the school that had so warmly embraced her during her campus visit, the one that felt the most like home: Tennessee State University, a historically black institution.
“When we got to the campus and I saw the President’s House, I just kind of lit up,” said Johnson. “Everyone was so nice and pleasant, the campus was really nice and I really enjoyed my visit.”
Johnson’s search for the perfect college fit is a common reason many students choose to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In fact, the United Negro College Fund reports that HBCUs graduate twenty percent of African Americans with undergraduate degrees. The sense of community, the the level of student engagement by the faculty and and the often lower tuition than comparable predominantly white institutions (PWIs) have some students flocking to the “Ebony Tower”.
Mitchell Ramseur, an graduate of Tuskegee University, echoes this sentiment.
“Tuskegee felt like family,” said the North Carolina native. “I felt some classism, but not racism, which allowed me to focus more.” He contrasted the nurturing experience at Tuskegee with that of graduate school at a PWI, where he says he felt like “just a number.”
Ramseur’s HBCU experience played such large role in his development that he recently co-founded My HBCU Interview, a division of his company Universal Tutoring LLC. “Our goal is to interview every HBCU graduate on the planet,” he laughed. Ramseur shared that their primary focus is to use alumni experiences to encourage more applications and enrollment in these institutions. “We want students to see that there is a choice.”
But what does this choice mean in our so-called “post racial” society? In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Vedder writes “In a nation where there is a black president elected largely with white votes, where blacks are found with increasing frequency as Secretary of State, in Congress, as leading entertainers and sports figures, and as CEO’s of prestigious companies like American Express, do we really need to have HBCU’s?”
“Until our social challenges are over, then the answer is yes,” said Richard Wright, professor of linguistics and Board of Trustees member at Howard University in Washington DC.
He feels that HBCUs have more of a commitment to social justice than other types of institutions because of the issues historically faced by their students and surrounding community.
“HBCUs in a post racial society still need to produce people committed to social justice. It has nothing to do with race, it’s whoever suffers,” Wright offers, evidence of the critical role historically black institutions continue to play.
A key criticism of the black college experience is that it is not “real” — that is, students may leave their institutions with a skewed sense of what the world outside of the college campus is like. There are also those who believe that the academics at HBCUs cannot compare to those at predominantly white schools. Leslie Massey, who completed both undergraduate and graduate work at Florida A & M University refutes this notion.
“I felt very prepared to enter the corporate world,” said Massey, who majored in accounting. “If anything, they overcompensated to make sure we were prepared for the real world.”
Beyond the draw of show bands, step shows and fond campus memories, HBCUs offer a solid academic foundation and a level of guidance that many are often unparalleled. According to the American Youth Policy Forum, African Americans at these institutions are more likely to choose graduate majors in the sciences than at majority white colleges. They also produce the majority of the nation’s black Ph.Ds., as some PWIs struggle to retain blacks in their doctoral programs.
While every HBCU has its own mission, the basic premise has always been to educate the underserved, which has expanded to all who seek a quality education. As such, HBCUs enroll more first-generation, low income and students in need of extra preparation than PWIs. Yet, there are PWIs that are taking a closer look at the same populations; ones that they do not have a long history of educating, and hence they may not always understand the populations’ unique needs.
To stay relevant, Ramseur suggests HBCUs tailoring majors to meet community needs and more integration with the surrounding community.
Predominantly white or historical black, it is ultimately up to the individual to decide on the right fit. However, for those who still doubt the salience of HBCUs, take a look at upper level corporate America. Observe the faculties and administration at other major universities. Look at the staff at major research hospitals. Turn on your television during prime time. Now tell us about your post race America and that need for predominantly black institutions is gone.